Opinion

Will farmers burn paddy stubble next season too?

Ramandeep Singh Mann | Updated on December 13, 2019 Published on December 13, 2019

They may not if the financial assistance of ₹100/quintal for not burning stubble is extended to all farmers, and if State governments ensure seamless delivery of the amount before the next harvest season

Punjab Remote Sensing Centre has recorded 52,942 incidents of paddy stubble burning from September 23 to November 26 up from 50,590 in 2018. Following this, fines have been imposed in 23,277 cases and 1,737 FIRs have been lodged against farmers for disobeying the orders duly promulgated by a government officer.

Magisterial complaints have also been lodged in 266 cases, under section 39 of Air act, 1981 for causing air pollution. ICAR data show that as on November 30, there were 6,364 cases of farm fires in Haryana in 2019, down from 9,225, and farm fires in Uttar Pradesh were down from 6,623 in 2018, to 4,230 this year.

More machines supplied

According to Punjab Agriculture Secretary Kahan Singh Pannu, 28,000 crop residue management machines like Happy Seeder, Super-Straw Management System (S-SMS), chopper, mulcher, cutter-cum-slasher and hydraulically reversible mould board plough were delivered in 2018, and another 18,000 were delivered this year.

These machines were provided to the farmers at subsidised rates — subsidy is 50 per cent on machines purchased by farmers individually, and 80 per cent if purchased by societies. Before the onset of subsidised straw management machines, some farmers had already bought these machines. So, the total number of crop residue management machines in Punjab is pegged at around 50,000, which include around 14,000 Happy Seeders, 6,000 S-SMS, 8,000 choppers/shredders/mulchers, 7,000 rotavators, 4,000 reversible ploughs, 5,500 zero-till drills and 350 balers.

The money for these machines was provided by the Centre through a scheme for Promotion of Agricultural Mechanisation for In-Situ Management of Crop Residue in the States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT Delhi for the period from 2018-19 to 2019-20 with the total outgo of ₹1,151.80 crore. Punjab received ₹546.18 crore in 2018 and 2019, Haryana ₹329.90 crore, Uttar Pradesh ₹253.88 crores, and Delhi ₹4.52 crores.

Has not helped

Now, the million dollar question is: Did these “crop residue management machines” address the burning issue of paddy straw burning? The answer, as for all to see, is negative. Despite the subsidised machines, the number of farm fires increased. The main premise of the mechanised approach of “in situ management of crop residue” hinged on two machines: one was the S-SMS attachment fitted into the harvester combine — which ensures that any loose straw thrown also gets cut and spread evenly on the field; and the second was the “Happy Seeder”, which is a tractor-mounted machine — which allows planting of wheat without the need for burning leftover straw from the previous paddy crop.

 

The other straw management machines (chopper/shredder/mucher) are used for cutting the paddy stubble into small pieces and incorporating the straw into the field through deep tillage (rotavator/reversible plough), or compressing the straw into compact bundles (baler).

Farmers resorted to paddy straw burning because of two reasons. The first being the farmers could not afford to buy or rent the crop residue management machines, which came at an extra cost of around ₹3,500-4000/acre. Another point worth noting is that the extra cost incurred vis-a-vis the crop residue management machines is not factored in the Minimum Support Price of paddy. So, in other words, we expect that the farmers cut down on their profits, which as it is have been dipping year on year. Is this fair?

Not enough

The second reason was that the number of machines available in Punjab for crop residue management was not adequate. A harvester combine attached with Super SMS can harvest around 12-15 acres in a day and there were 6,000 harvesters with SMS. So if 6,000 harvesters are operated, then these could harvest around 9 lakh hectares in the sowing window of around 25 days which is less than one-third of the total area under rice in Punjab.

Last year, Punjab had 31.03 lakh hectares under rice cultivation which included 25.92 lakh hectares under paddy and 5.11 lakh hectares under basmati. The same happened with the Happy Seeder machines, each of which can sow 7-8 acres a day. And if we factor per day usage against the sowing window of 25 days, it can sow around 11.5 hectares which is one-third of the total area under wheat in Punjab.

Last year, area under wheat in Punjab was 35 lakh hectares. Thus the average farmer could not get hold of these “crop residue management machines”. There are other ways of managing the straw also. That is, using the mulcher and the rotavator to chop the straw into fine pieces, and then ploughing the shredded straw in the field with the help of reversible plough. However, if these machines are taken on rent, it would be costly and the farmers will not be able to afford them.

Too costly

No one was ready to acknowledge the root cause of the problem — that is, the farmers are unable to bear the costs to buy or rent the “crop residue management machines”. But, then, on November 6, 2019, the Supreme Court directed the States of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to provide ₹100/quintal on non-basmati paddy within seven days, to small and marginal farmers who did not burn non-basmati paddy.

This decision was welcomed by the farmers, as now they could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But, this decision unfortunately, came when 90 per cent of the harvesting had been completed. Though the apex court decision of providing financial assistance of ₹100/quintal is a welcome step, it excludes the farmers who own more than five acres, and it leaves out the tenant farmers also.

It would have been better if the financial assistance was extended to all the farmers irrespective of the landholding and ownership status. There is still a ray of hope. Farmer unions of Punjab and Haryana have requested the apex court to allow them to be a party to the ongoing case in the Supreme Court, where they wish to plead the point of providing ₹100/quintal assistance to all the farmers.

The issue of straw burning can end provided all the farmers are ensured ₹100/quintal for managing the paddy stubble, and if the State governments devise a robust “fool proof” seamless delivery mechanism for this financial assistance to reach the farmers before the next paddy harvesting season. If any of these conditions are not met, one will not be surprised if the stubble burning continues in the next season too.

The writer is a commentator on agriculture issues

Published on December 13, 2019
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